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Orchard and Forest ~ A Love Note from Your Online Abbess

Dearest Monks, artists, and pilgrims,

I have been going back through the Abbey archives and found this sweet post written almost six years ago when John and I were living in Vienna and making plans to move to Ireland. It was a very sweet and vulnerable time of our lives. So I am offering these words to you once again, several years on, from a different place in my life:

John and I have made the discernment to move to the west coast of Ireland at the end of December and so this threshold time left here in Vienna has become a profound opportunity for retreat, turning inward, savoring our experience of these days, and sharing with one another the dreams being birthed within us.

We have taken on a shared rhythm of life that has become deeply nourishing and such a gift.  Part of that rhythm is a time of praying lectio divina together each morning.  We are praying texts from the prophet Isaiah, letting them work on us, and then having a conversation about what we are discovering.

Last Friday the phrase “the orchard (shall) be regarded as a forest” (Isaiah 29:17-24) shimmered for me.  Pears and woods have been calling to me this autumn season. In my recent rereading the story of the Handless Maiden, I was so touched by her solitary journey through the forest to come upon the pear orchard and imagining those pears heavy with sweetness bending down to nourish her. Here in the scriptures orchards and forests were again dwelling together in the poetry of the text.  Images rose up in my prayer: ripeness, lush, sweet, fruitfulness, greenness, savoring, the beautiful vineyards of Vienna which nestle against the woods, the cultivation of orchards and vineyards to bear fruit, the wildness of forests as a space beyond the confines of cultural expectations.

As I listened for the invitation, I saw how orchard and forest together form a symbol for the monastic life.  They invite us into the balance between creating rhythm and structure through the cultivation of fruit and the orderliness of orchards, and the freedom and instinctual power we find in the heart of the woods.  In east Indian culture, the forest was considered “beyond the pale,” which means beyond the rules that normally restrict us.  The ancient monks fled to the desert and off to the wilderness to find this place “beyond the pale” of established society.  But they brought with them scriptures and shared wisdom which offered the trellis of support for their practice.  The two together is what allowed them to flourish.

I am called to the wild edge of the sea in Ireland because it shimmers for me as a place to explore what being a monk “beyond the pale” might mean.  I want to live in this holy landscape and see what it teaches me about the dance between rhythm, Rule, wildness, and dancing freedom.

I am reflecting on the incredibly rich movements I have experienced, both inner and outer, and how these are calling me to move into the coming year.  To think that a year ago our “plan” was to come to Austria for only the summer to study German and explore the possibilities for a future move.

I am listening for a word to guide me in the coming year.  Clearly pears and viriditas are shimmering for me.  My word this past year was “savor” which has been very meaningful.  The root of the word savor is the same as the root of wisdom.  I have been reminded again and again to slow down and linger over these incredible moments I have been given.  To savor life’s moments.

So much of my life I have lived with the subtle fear of not having enough – enough food, enough money, enough love, and the fear of not being enough.

I think these fears for many of us are at the root of the compulsions we grasp at to fill ourselves, to seek satisfaction.

But of course, we are only left hungering again, or numb to life’s grace.  The achievements, the feasting, the toys, the seeking after love, all leave us empty.

It is only when we remember that the branch of the pear tree is already bending herself to us so no reaching is necessary that we are satisfied.

But even more than that.

When we realize that everything, everywhere, including ourselves, is already suffused with the greening life force of the one who sustains us.  And all we have to do is breathe that in and know ourselves sustained, suffused, spread through with the love we so desperately seek.  This has been the gift of this first leg on my pilgrimage.  To know this not just with the mind, or even the heart, but a fully embodied knowing so there is no gap between knowing and the truth of it.

And even more than that, this heavy ripening fruit which exceeds all measure, must be given away, offered freely with no fear of depletion.  Not in a self-sacrificing kind of way, but one which honors my own gifts and real physical and emotional limits, and makes no apologies for radical self-care of my body vessel, time when I dip back into this suffusion of love and grace which of course is already there.  It is our forgetting that exhausts us.  The monk in the world practices remembering this sacred rhythm of inward and outward extension again and again.

What the pear is offering to me is a deep trust that I am suffused already with what the poet Rilke called “a paradise of light” and through cultivating my own growing sweetness, I bear fruit which must be offered to others.

Each of us has a particular kind of heavy sweetness to give to the world.  The kind that overflows naturally when we experience ourselves as nourished.

May you cultivate sweet fruit and sweeter wildness and offer it freely, no holding back.

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Photo © Christine Valters Paintner

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